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An overdose awareness day speech by Caty Simon

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#Reframetheblame is an initiative created by Urban Survivors Union and the National Alliance of American Drug User Unions. The purpose of #reframetheblame is quite simple. We are opposed to using drug-induced homicide laws as a tactic for reducing overdose. These approaches have long been shown to be ineffective and they fly in the face of overdose prevention that works. People who use drugs have come together to make a statement about how we feel about these actions. We do not agree with MORE harm coming to people who use drugs and low-level dealers simply trying to support themselves. We do not want more jail, more pain, more prison, more drug war. THE ONLY WAY to rid the illicit drug supply of the fentanyl that is killing people is to END PROHIBITION NOW. Criminalization and drug policy are responsible for the rising death rates. The evidence is clear, in states where these policies are used we see more overdose. END the madness and #Reframetheblame!!!!!!!

Speech at overdose awareness day vigil!

Hi, I’m Caty Simon, and today I’m representing the New England Users’ Union, an organization of current and former drug users fighting for our human rights.

So much has changed in the short year since I spoke about my ex-girlfriend Laura’s death of overdose here for the very first Holyoke overdose awareness vigil. At the time, I talked about how being able to use unashamed in a safe injection site, monitored by medical professionals, could have saved her life.

Much of the change I mention has been change for the better. More than a dozen cities nationally now have plans for or are considering legislation to create supervised consumption facilities, an evidence-based practice with decades of studies proving its life-saving worth—no one has ever died of an overdose in a safe consumption facility, and they’ve been shown to lower overdose rates as well as drug-related harm in general in the communities they’re based in. Just this week, San Francisco and Philadelphia city officials bravely announced that they would go forward in their plans to build safe consumption sites in their cities despite a fear mongering editorial against them by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosinstein in the New York Times, and an NPR interview in which he threatened to bring the wrath of the Department of Justice down on these facilities. More locally, we’ve seen the idea gain currency to the extent that hrh413 and the New England Users’ Union were able to bring a Safe Shapes model here today at this event for the public to see what exactly a safe consumption facility might look like—when the topic was all but taboo some years ago.

Closer to home and beyond safe consumption facilities, this year has seen the broadening of needle exchange availability in our region, with new facilities going up and becoming viable in Pittsfield and Greenfield and an end to the last procedural barriers to the Springfield needle exchange advocates have been fighting for decades. Now more drug users in our area have access to clean syringes and harm reduction materials to help them avoid HIV and Hep-C infection, as well as Narcan kits to allow them to revive overdosing friends and loved ones.

But as the opioid epidemic forces people to finally look to the rights, dignity, and humanity of active drug users, reactionary forces assemble to undermine the gains we’ve made. One of the most concerning of these reactionary trends is the national spread of drug-induced homicide laws. Throughout the country, states are adopting legislation punishing people with felony murder or manslaughter sentencing for giving or selling someone drugs which cause fatal overdose. When Governor Baker attempted to introduce such a law in this state, his bill’s wording punished anyone who “distributed” drugs to the person who overdosed–and any former or current drug user here knows that you’d be hard-pressed to find an opioid user who’s never given another opioid user drugs at some point.

These laws are about the false satisfaction of vengeance, about the false binary created between drug users and drug sellers–but big drug kingpins aren’t the ones suffering from these laws, only other users selling a bit to support their habits or trying to help a friend. All of us suffer every time these laws subvert Good Samaritan laws like the one in our state, which promise drug users that they will not be arrested for drug possession if they call 911 to help a friend who’s overdosed. But if our friends and community members have to think twice worrying about catching a murder or manslaughter charge for copping for us or helping us inject, that makes it that much harder for them to stick around after the ambulance has been called to revive us during those vital life-or-death few minutes after we overdose. (And before anybody thinks to be judgemental about that, I doubt that sacrificing your own life to save another’s is an ethical test that most non-drug users would be able to pass.)

When my ex-girlfriend Laura overdosed on Ativan and heroin in December 2007, I not only lost her, but I also lost one of my best friends. My best friend Rae was Laura’s roommate at the time, and she was the one who discovered her body. She needed someone to blame, so without any proof at all, she came up with some convoluted narrative in her head about how she thought my partner of many years had gotten Laura the heroin and fled when she started to overdose. (Nevermind that my partner was famous in our community for having revived dozens of people, well before the widespread proliferation of Narcan). She told me I was too blinded with love for my partner to see the truth, and she stopped talking to me. I haven’t really spoken to her since.

Nowadays, I think about what else I could have lost if drug-induced homicide laws were in wider effect back then. What if Rae had convinced the law of her cockamamie story? I would’ve suffered the trauma of Laura dying, losing Rae as a friend, AND potentially losing a partner to a years long prison sentence. Or what if I’d actually given Laura the drugs? I was abstinent that year, but Laura and I had used opioids together many times, one or the other of us taking care of obtaining them. I could’ve been staring down the barrel of a decades long prison sentence while also mourning her death. Just grieving Laura nearly destroyed me–I’m not sure I could have survived anything beyond that. And yet, this is exactly the sort of multi-layered trauma that drug users must often deal with today when one of their loved ones dies of a fatal overdose. And every time I lose someone else to overdose now, I have to worry about losing yet another person close to them to this intensive form of criminalization.

That’s why a coalition of harm reductionists and drug users’ union members, under a feminist-led team based leadership model, including prominent women harm reductionists like Urban Survivor’s Union co-chairs Louise Vincent, Rebecca Brooks, and Jess Tilley–who is also New England Users’ Union’s own executive director–have started a national campaign called #ReframeTheBlame. We’re calling on people to sign DNP orders–Do Not Prosecute orders–which state that if one dies of a drug overdose, no one should be prosecuted for it. These orders aren’t legally binding, but then again, living wills were not legally binding until activists and advocates made their use widespread. And they have huge symbolic impact.

So, in conclusion, I’d like to read my Do Not Prosecute order aloud to you today: If I go off the methadone clinic and die of an overdose, I demand that no one be prosecuted for my death. If you grieve for me and you want vengeance for my death, channel that rage to work to end the drug war, which is poisoning our drug supply with fentanyl. It is criminalization that is killing us, not fellow drug users and low-end dealers struggling just like us to survive. Drug users and dealers in harm reduction informed communities do the best they can with the tools they have, like fentanyl test strips, but with fentanyl, everytime we use street opioids it is a roll of the dice when someone many links up the supply chain may not have mixed it right. And fentanyl is the obvious evolution of a black market, of criminalization, in which smaller, more potent quantities of drugs are legally safer to ship and more profitable. It’s a phenomenon called the iron law of prohibition. It is drug warriors who say that until we’re ready for treatment we should have no safe harm reduction options such as a clean supply, safe injection facilities, and syringe exchange. It is the drug warriors who thus condemn us to death. I will not be a symbol for them—a white woman whose life’s work is forgotten so that her death may be leveraged to continue to wage a racist, classist war on drugs. Because it is the white faces of drug users like me which are often held up to justify these laws, and it is black and brown drug users like many drug users in my community, some of whom have saved my life, who are more often convicted and sentenced because of them, If I die, I refuse to be wielded as a weapon against other marginalized drug users in community with me.

Thank you!

If you’d like to know more about the #ReframeTheBlame campaign, talk to one of its creators–Hrh413, Urban Survivor’s Union, and New England Users’ Union’s Jess Tilley, who is here tonight!

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